Growing up with a Samoan background, amongst other Samoan’s was a great childhood and place where the term “Fa’afa” was never really foreign to my cousins and I. During our high school island dance practice, I remember thinking I had a better understanding of what a Fa’afafine was; they were the confident, sassy individuals full of personality who danced their hearts out when performing a traditional siva (dance). They were the ones teachers put in front of me on stage because their dance moves were better than mine haha. But as I got older, I learned there was so much more than what met the eye...that behind every Fa’afa’s graceful dance movements, was a story; a story of struggle, doubt and self-discovery. A story of which a dear friend of mine, Miss Fa’afafine Australia 2015 Ella Lea’ana Collins, kindly shared with me. Her manner, respect and love she shares with her family and community is beyond her. Amongst Ella's amazing year of pageantry, interviews, catwalks and talent competitions, I sat down with the stunningly intelligent beauty to chat about her journey as a transgender beauty queen and “Kumu Hina”, a transgender film in this year's festival line up.
We’re pleased to have the film “Kumu Hina” as a part of our Festival which was viewed at a screening here in Sydney - can you tell us a bit about the movie, what you took from it and perhaps what not only Pasifika people, but people from all backgrounds can learn from it?
The documentary is about a transgender woman, named Kimu Wong-Kalu who is a Hawaiian dance instructor. The film illustrates her life as how she lives “in the middle” and what role she plays in society. Kimu is proactive with who she is as a Hawaiian resident, taking her culture and heritage very seriously - when you watch the film you see it strongly surrounds Hawaiian culture where she believes that the beauty of a “mahu” (meaning person in the middle or transgender), is that they are able to pass down the culture through dance and language to the young ones. It was so important for her to be a part of a school we she could teach not only native female dance, but also native male dance. In the film, Kimu talks about her struggles with finding love as a transgender.
What I took away from the film, is that you get what you put in, and I guess for me as a transgender women myself is that, there are many times where we come to a point where we feel like giving up and that we feel like this is an obstacle we can never get over because we’re forever jumping there hurdle’s just to get by. Watching the film I had an insight to where if you put in the hard yards, you’ll reap the rewards in the end - at the time it may seem impossible, but we as transgender women just have to dig deep. I walked away inspired. It’s our story and who we are, the struggles we face are so hard and I wouldn’t wish it apon anyone. It’s a life full of questions.
“What I would hope for people to learn from/take away from the film is to have a better understanding. We’re not asking for much, just that people have an open mind and a better understanding of who we are”,
because at the end of the day we have feelings too, we are people. And I’ll say this time and time again - we didn’t choose this, it is just who we are. I have to live my truth and be happy with who I am. And yea, that’s all I could ever hope for people gain from this movie.
You’ve achieved great things in a short period of time – Miss Faafafine Australia 2015 and placing 1st Runner Up at Miss Faafafine 2015 held in Samoa. Tell us about your position in the airlines and becoming the first transgender women to work for an Australian airline.
Applying for the airline as a transgender I thought was always going to be an obstacle, but I went for it. I asked my sister who is in the airlines whether I should I apply as a male and cut my hair. In the end I had to stick to my guns and said to myself; you know what, I’m just going to do it and if I get knocked down, I get knocked down. I was at a point where I felt ready to take on the role in the airline as a transgender women, so I did it. I was successful, I went through the whole training process and wore the airline’s female uniform.
"To find out I was the first transgender women to be employed by an Australian airline in aviation history was something that I had never ever thought could be achieved. To learn other Fa’afafines were inspired by this was the reward for me. It taught me the kind of person I am now - I’m no longer afraid to put myself in awkward positions or to be vulnerable in a situation because for me, I’m all about bringing a change.”
I don’t want the young ones to go through what we went through, I want to make it easier for the younger transgenders whether they’re Polynesian, Samoan or of any background. I say that because it’s the hardest thing to go through. Being successful for an airline that accepted me for being a transgender was such a personal achievement and something I want to get back into after my pageant duties have quietened down.
After seeing how large the Pasifika transgender community is here in Australia after the Miss Faafafine Australia pageant held in August, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of support there is available from local communities/council’s?
To tell you the truth, to be really honest – there aren’t many support networks. There isn’t much out there at all for us. The hardest thing about Fa’afafine is that we are each other’s mentors, we are each other’s support systems. I guess if you don’t have a Fa’afafine network, you’re really doing it on your own. Some turn to video’s on Youtube, information online to seek support. I was fortunate to have sisters I was able to open up to, to have a better understanding. If I didn’t have support or knowledge of what I was going through, I wouldn’t’ve known what to do.
“I think if there was more awareness of who the Fa’afafine community are as people, there’d be less ignorance and more understanding - we’re not going to be able to deal with these situations if we don’t bring them to the forefront.”
What people don’t know, they tend to be afraid of and I’ve learned some people are afraid to dive into the whole culture of Fa’afafine because it’s unknown. If there are more Fa’afafine’s that come to put themselves out there, people are going to know, they're here.
How do you think the Pasifika Film Festival will help Polynesian’s stay connected to their culture with stories like Kumu Hina?
“I think the Pasifika Film Festival is a great way and a great tool for our stories to be heard. I think in the end, we need this platform because we come from such small islands but are so rich in culture.”
If you step in to a Pacific culture, you will see our people are full of life, we are all about family. Having a Samoan background is very special to me, we are still very much in touch with our Fa’a Samoa (Samoan way) and I think that’s something many Samoan’s are proud of.
"Part of the Fa’a Samoa is the Fa’afafine and that’s something we are also proud of."
At the end of the day, when the world thinks about Samoan culture they think of rugby players, but what a lot of them don’t realise is that, yes there are rugby players, but there are also Fa’afafine’s that could probably tackle better and have bigger muscles...haha. These are assets to our culture that people don’t know about and I think that through the Pasifika Film Festival, these stories will be heard and shared throughout the world. It will bring so much interest around who we are and what our culture’s all about - we have so much that’s dying to be heard and this Film Festival is just what we need as Pacific people.
What are you looking forward to as a proud Samoan transgender and Miss Fa’afaine Australia 2015?
As Miss Fa’afafine Australia, one of the main things I want to achieve is to create a platform where all Fa’afafine’s can feel they are of worth. I have a project where we’ll be holding a welfare day before the start of the new year. This will involve talks with Fa’afafine’s of all ages, from all walks of life. I’ll be interviewing them on their stories, obstacles they’ve faced and what they’re hoping to achieve which being a voice in their community. Like I said earlier, as Fa’afafine, we are each other’s support networks. I believe if we come together and stand together as sisters, our voices will be a lot stronger. It’s all about empowering Fa’afafine’s because, we can achieve. I’m all about empowerment, especially for our young ones.
Facebook: Ella Lea'ana-Collins